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CBS Sunday Morning Spotlights Growth of Lehigh Valley Economy

By Colin McEvoy on April 26, 2022

The growth of the Lehigh Valley’s regional economy and its transformation from a region reliant on steel making and other heavy manufacturing industries were on display for a national audience during an April 24 segment on CBS Sunday Morning.

Correspondent Lee Cowan interviewed several regional business leaders and experts, including Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC) President & CEO Don Cunningham, to discuss the evolution of the Lehigh Valley economy from its steel-making heritage during the days of Bethlehem Steel.

Since that time, the region economy has developed into a balanced and multi-faceted economy, as well as a Top 50 national market for manufacturing. It has also become a strong East Coast hub for e-commerce, creating $20 hourly wages for workers with high school diplomas or less, “effectively makes that the minimum wage, at least around here,” Cowan said. His segment focused on the development of distribution and logistics in the Lehigh Valley that supports the nationwide boom in online shopping and e-commerce.

“When people get on their iPhone and they order every imaginable product to show up at their doorstep, it’s not being brought there by magic. It takes, quite frankly, an army of people to do that,” Cunningham said during the CBS Sunday Morning segment.

The full six-minute segment can be viewed on the CBS Sunday Morning website or its YouTube channel, or viewed below:

In addition to Cunningham’s interview, LVEDC provided economic data and other assistance to CBS Sunday Morning for the preparation of the story. The segment also includes interviews from two members of the LVEDC Board of Directors: Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure, and Susan Larkin, Chief Operating Officer of Allied Personnel Services.

The segment described the rise of the Lehigh Valley’s distribution sector as an element of the region’s economic resurgence. Its central location, access to markets, and well-developed transportation infrastructure makes the Lehigh Valley attractive for e-commerce, which has seen accelerated growth nationally due to the rise in online shopping during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Life is an evolution, and economies are an evolution,” Cunningham said. “And I think anybody who builds an economy thinking it’s going to be that way forever is a bit foolish. Things are always changing.”

The segment positions the Lehigh Valley as a growing region in population and  economic output which has transitioned away from reliance on heavy manufacturing, an issue that other regions in parts of the country that have come to be known as the “Rust Belt” have struggled to overcome.

However, modern manufacturing remains an important component of the new Lehigh Valley economy, making up $7.9 billion of the region’s $42.9 billion gross domestic product. As Jim Damicis of Camoin Associates noted in a recent talent study presentation, the growth in manufacturing and distribution have gone hand-in-hand because as more products are made, they must be transported.

McClure discussed efforts to preserve open space and farmland even as e-commerce and distribution grows in the Lehigh Valley, as he recently discussed in his State of Northampton County address. About $12 million in county funds have been spent in the last four years to buy parcels of farmland, McClure said.

Adrian Ponsen, who analyzes industrial real estate for CoStar, said in the segment that distribution and e-commerce growth is not limited to the Lehigh Valley. Nationwide, nearly two billion square feet of new warehouse space has been built in this country in the last five years, the equivalent to about 33,000 football fields worth of distribution centers.

“From a purely economic standpoint, for high school diploma or less workers, it’s created something (a market-driven minimum wage) that, quite frankly, hasn’t existed in this area since the days of cement mills and slate quarries and steel mills,” Cunningham said.

This marks the second time in recent years that the Lehigh Valley has figured prominently in the CBS Sunday Morning news program. In December 2020, the program featured Bethlehem-based OraSure Technologies and its work on a self-administered diagnostic test for COVID-19.

The Lehigh Valley also has been featured recently in prominent national publications including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post.

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